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Farm Workers in Washington State

The Creation of the Washington State UFW in the 1980s

by Oscar Rosales Castañeda

Radio KDNA was a catalyst for the resurgence of union activity among farm workers in Washington State. Not only did KDNA catalyze worker solidarity in the 1980s, it also shaped the conditions necessary for revived UFW organizing and a new institutional and political presence in the state.1

Many local farm workers learned about unions and political activism through the KDNA social service center, _el Centro Campesino/_the farm worker center. At el Centro discussions often focused on organizing a farm worker’s union, which had been the goal since the 1970s wildcat strikes. Discussions also centered on forming an official Washington UFW branch, also a long frustrated goal.

A group of UFW members approached Tomas Villanueva in the mid 1980s, requesting he assist them in the formation of the Washington branch, noting Villanueva’s experience with farm worker activism as well as his impeccable reputation as an organizer. Soon after, he became involved in the renewed UFW campaigns to unionize.

As Villanueva recalls, “When Brother Cesar came, I believe it was April, there was going to be a farm workers march from Granger to Yakima, and Brother Cesar was going to be leading the march. So I helped organize it, and walked the march with him. Then they really started talking seriously about what we need is a union, and I knew that we needed a union, but I was kind of convinced to run for president. They said, ‘Well, you know, you are the one that can make it go and all that.’ So I talked to my wife and my sons at that time. My sons were little….They all agreed, ‘Well, that’s what you have always wanted to be. You wouldn’t be happy if you didn’t get back into it, so go for it.’”2

Soon after, Villanueva left his job as a building inspector and became the first president of the Washington State UFW at the founding convention on September 21, 1986. After the UFW founding convention, Villanueva received a phone threat. The man said, “‘I understand you formed a union… I want to know where you’re located because I want to come and beat the heck out of you…’” Villanueva replied nonchalantly, “I have a meeting at one o’clock in Yakima. It’s 11:30. I’m willing to be late to my meeting, and I’ll wait for you till 12:45. That gives you a little over an hour.” The man never showed up.3

Despite expected threats and intimidation, the union was able to continue with its work. According to Villanueva, “in just the first two years we had over 25 strikes.” The first strike commenced at Pyramid Orchards on February 10, 1987. In the Pyramid Orchards strike there were only around sixty strikers. However, protestors on the picket lines during weekdays numbered at least 100 and on weekends 300 to 400. By five o’clock in the morning, people would stop by on their way to work, dropping off coffee and food for picketing workers. The WA State UFW activity renewed the long dormant farm worker movement. Meanwhile, anti-union forces were in the process of formulating a response to the organization’s actions.

The opposition from growers and farm owners started with the Pyramid strike, with the Washington Growers’ League, which is now called the “Growers’ League.” According to Villanueva, “they formed for the whole purpose of trying to stop us—trying to stop the farm worker union.”4 The growers’ strategy was to gather their forces and bring workers with them to farms where a strike might occur. Their workers would finish the work, in effect breaking the strike.5

Villanueva told the workers who were asked by growers to work on such farms: “If your boss tells you to come, don’t come. They cannot fire you. They can fire you if you don’t work on their farm, but they cannot force you to work for somebody else.”6 In such critical times, the use of media outlets proved essential. For this purpose, Villanueva had started a radio talk show program on Radio KDNA, where he informed others of strike news and occurrences, answering call-in questions from people concerned about what was transpiring.

On the Radio KDNA show, Villanueva urged people to come to the Pyramid Orchard strike. Farm workers and their supporters showed up in large numbers. By 8:00, 1,000 people were on the picket line. By 10:00, when the growers were to come, over 2,000 workers were in the picket line surrounding the entire orchard. Only about 150 growers showed up, with a group of only about 50 workers convinced enough to follow them. Most of the workers that did join the growers arrived in masks to avoid being recognized by strikers.7 This overwhelming support for the strike helped to ensure its success

Throughout the 1980s, the UFW continued its work fighting for a union and a voice. They picketed outside the Office of Employment and Security in Yakima, with farm workers eventually occupying the office in an attempt to call Washington State Governor Booth Gardner into a meeting. There were also numerous asparagus strikes throughout the decade.

The UFW movement at the national level was shaken to its core with the sudden death of Cesar Chavez on April 23, 1993. Until the very moment of his death, Chavez never wavered in his pursuit of justice and rights for farm workers. Over 40,000 mourners marched behind his casket during the funeral service held in Delano, CA.8

Chateau Saint Michelle Strike

In spite of this tremendous loss to the UFW, the local Washington UFW continued its efforts in an ongoing struggle against the prominent Washington winery, Chateau Ste Michelle. During this campaign, the UFW would finally achieve what farm workers had sought for nearly a century: a binding contract with an agricultural employer.

The farm worker’s fight against Chateau Saint Michelle winery lasted over eight years, beginning in 1987. Many said there was no way that Chateau Saint Michelle would ever recognize a union, especially a farm workers union. However, the workers were determined.9

What distinguished the Chateau Saint Michelle campaign from other UFW campaigns was their confrontational approach and strong backing and support.10 Prior to the Chateau Saint Michelle campaign, the union had little backing and the National UFW had few resources to allocate for local struggles. In fact, affiliation with the national UFW office and the AFL-CIO did not occur until 1994. To supplement the lack of national labor support, more aggressive tactics were an organizational necessity.

The strike started at the grassroots. A group of striking workers from Chateau Ste Michelle, including a volunteer named Kurt Peterson, sought out farm labor activist leader Rosalinda Guillen for support. Her experience with the Rainbow Coalition made the campaign more successful because of the tactics she used to pressured the winery. Guillen “created scenes” at share holder meetings for four successive years, rode the ferry system and pressure other workers to take the wines off of the ferries, and convinced other unions to join the UFW cause in worker solidarity. Unions that joined in the Chateau Ste Michelle cause included the flight attendant’s union, the international workers union, and the longshoreman workers union, the latter of which refused to unload Chateau Ste Michelle wines in Europe. International newspapers publicized this activity, bringing it to the attention of powerful unions and gaining international support for the strike.

As Guillen noted, “[p]icket lines were going on all the time across the state, at restaurants, at the winery itself, at events where the wine was going to be featured….we had a friend who was sending us the minutes of the wine commission meetings, and they were becoming very agitated. [The refusal to negotiate] was giving [Chateau Saint Michelle] a bad name.”11 Despite the organizational obstacles of her outsider status and her gender, Guillen was able to organize a UFW committee of organizers.12

To hamper the committee’s actions, the winery brought in three union busters, to little effect. In addition to union busters, Valdemer Valasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) attempted to raid the UFW’s campaign under Guillen’s leadership. According to Guillen, “He came in and tried to negotiate with the company for the contract under the auspices of FLOC. [This was] early 1994, before we had affiliated with the United Farm Workers of America. Then we out-organized him, basically, and sent him back to Ohio.” Though controversial, this was not the only time perceived farm worker advocates tried to overtake the UFW’s Chateau Saint Michelle campaign committee.

Other local power brokers also attempted to co-opt the campaign. State Representative Margarita Prentice (one of the few Latina elected officials) shocked the committee by financing a separate company union. The UFW responded by running a successful campaign urging organized labor to withhold endorsement of Rep. Prentice. Yet another strategy was the winery’s attempt to bring long-time activist and founding member of Seattle’s El Centro de La Raza, Roberto Maestas, to encourage farm workers not to unionize. As Rosalinda Guillen noted, “the company hired him as a union buster and brought him in on a private jet to talk to the workers, to vote against the union contract. He spent a couple of days out there to try and convince the workers. That was amazing to me. I couldn’t believe that. He’s the head of El Centro de la Raza in Seattle.”13

In spite of the continuous efforts to subvert and destroy not only the campaign, but the United Farm Workers of Washington State, the UFW Chateau Saint Michelle Campaign Committee was victorious. On December 5, 1995, after eight years of struggle, the UFW secured an agreement and signed a contract to unionize the workers at the Chateau Saint Michelle Winery in the Yakima Valley, the first such victory in farm worker organizing history in Washington State. By this time, the independent union was now affiliated with the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO. In describing the campaign, Guillen noted, “[i]t’s the way it should be and it’s the way it can be, if people want to put their time and their effort into it. I didn’t do anything but that.”14

Next: Ch. 10, The Struggle Continues, 1997-2006

“A History of Farm Labor Organizing, 1890-2009” includes the following chapters:

  1. Toward a History of Farm Workers in Washington State
  2. The IWW in the Fields,1905-1925
  3. The 1933 Battle at Congdon Orchards
  4. Asians and Latinos Enter the Fields
  5. Mexican-American Struggles to Organize, Post-WWII
  6. El Movimiento and Farm Labor Organizing in the 1960s
  7. UFW’s Yakima Hop Strikes, 1971
  8. Radio KDNA: The Voice of the Farm Worker
  9. Resurgence of the UFW of WA State in the 1980s
  10. The Struggle Continues, 1997-2006
  11. Bibliography

Copyright (©) Oscar Rosales Castañeda 2009

1 For more on Radio KDNA, go to //

2 Tomas Villanueva Interview, 11 April 2003 and 7 June 2004 by Anne O’Neill and Sharon Walker. In April of 1986, over two thousand people participated in a march for farm worker rights in Yakima Valley. Cesar Chavez, President of the national United Farm Workers of America, led the marchers from Yakima along Interstate 82 south-bound to Granger in the Lower Yakima Valley. It was during this visit that Chavez approached Villanueva, requesting his assistance and leadership in the formation of the Washington branch of the UFW.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 On August 8, 1994, President Clinton presented the ‘Medal of Freedom’ posthumously to Cesar Chavez in a ceremony attended by his wife, Helen, who accepted the honor in his memory.

9 Villanueva Interview, 11 April 2003 and 7 June 2004 by Anne O’Neill and Sharon Walker.

10 Ibid.

11 Rosalinda Guillen Interview, 12 April 2004, by Sharon Walker and Sarah Laslett.

12 In Guillen’s words, “First of all, I wasn’t from the area. I was from the coast, I’m a woman, and I hadn’t been involved. I wasn’t part of the old guard. I had a very close tie with the workers, and it’s amazing how so few people believed the transparency of the process we developed for strategic operations. Everything that we did, the workers were involved. I don’t think to this day that people believe that. That’s the disheartening part of the whole thing. Farm workers can do that. Cesar did it. We did it at Chateau Saint Michelle. A farm worker that can’t read and write, can lead a campaign. The fact that I can [read and write] doesn’t disqualify me from it. I came under attack many times for not being enough of a farm worker—I don’t have an accent, I can read and write, I’m not—I don’t know how to say it—mousey and quiet. We took leadership and moved the campaign forward the way the workers felt it needed to move forward. It had never happened before. It was a difficult time. Our cars were vandalized. We spent two weeks without vehicles because someone had vandalized all of our vehicles. Sugar in the engines, my gas tank, somebody had poked holes in it. A lot of things happened in our campaign and we just continued pushing forward,” Rosalinda Guillen Interview, 12 April 2004.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.